My secret spot for necessary moments of reprieve from the hustle and bustle of college life is the children’s book section of the Notre Dame bookstore. The children’s book section features wonders aplenty: the sight of tiny humans sitting at tiny tables reading tiny books, the occasional grandparent or parent reading lovingly to a little one in their lap, and bright-colored book covers that look infinitely more enjoyable than most of the things I am forced to read for class. Usually, I browse the storybooks until I have sufficiently escaped into a world where the biggest challenges are counting the number of baby animals on the farm or helping the lost princess find her way back to the castle.
But this didn’t happen last time. What happened was that my casual browsing was interrupted by my beholding of a far-too-accurate cartoon depiction of my impatient soul: the exasperated Elephant of Mo Willem’s book, Waiting Is Not Easy.Allow me to give you a brief summary of Elephant’s simple story. Things start out grandly for our protagonist: he learns that his dearest friend, Piggie, has a surprise for him. A surprise which, as he learns to his dismay, must be awaited. He receives only a simple promise: “It will be worth it.” But of course, this does not pacify our protagonist. For Elephant, this process of waiting is filled with impatience, anger, and doubt.
“I do not think your surprise is worth all this waiting!”
“I will not wait anymore!”
“We have waited too long!”
“It is getting dark! It is getting darker! Soon we will not be able to see anything!”
“We have wasted the whole day.”
Now, as I reached the page containing Elephant’s massive groan, my soul did a massive groan of its own. When I read Elephant’s words of impatience, anger, and doubt, I knew I was reading reactions so very familiar to my own heart. Waiting is hard. And it is something that I don’t know how to do very well at all: not in my relationships, in my spiritual life, or in the unfolding of my vocation.
In his book Waiting for God, Henri Nouwen writes of the holy and waiting people of Luke’s Gospel. As he points out, all of the figures who appear in the first pages are waiting: Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, Anna. Like Elephant, they learn the surprising news of a great gift, which is immediately followed by the news that this gift must be awaited. And they are promised that this will be good.
“The whole opening of the Good News is filled with waiting people. And right at the beginning all those people in someway or another hear the words, “Do not be afraid. I have something good to say to you. Waiting, as we see it in the people on the first pages of the Gospel, is waiting with a sense of promise. People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait.”
Waiting is not easy. During Advent, we ponder in our hearts what it would mean for us to practice holy and joyful waiting, the very waiting that is the space where the Good News breaks open. As we wait for Christ, we learn to wait in a way that dwells in the promise of His love for us: waiting that dwells in love and hope instead of fear and doubt. As the days get shorter and shorter, we are reminded of how it is often precisely when we feel that it has been getting darker and darker (“Soon we will not be able to see anything!”) that the light of Christ shines clearest and most brightly. It is the patient heart that is able to encounter the infant Jesus hidden under a starry sky in a lowly manger.
May this Advent teach our hearts the worthiness of waiting.
As of today around 1:30 PM or so, we have been married for ten years. Speaking to a group of students last night, I noted that you have endured nearly a third of your life spent with me. For this, I am grateful.
While ten years is no more remarkable of an anniversary than eleven (and certainly a less remarkable one than thirty-one), it nonetheless is a time to think more deeply about the gift of our marriage. Like most couples (even if we thought we were different), the earliest stages of our married lives were an education into nuptial love. The first years of marriage, we loved one another as those in their early 20s tend to love. It pained me to be away from you for even a night. We had in each other a companion to go out to bars in Boston, someone to travel with to Alaska. Yet, in these earliest days of our marriage, your love began to form me in patience, in compassion, in a mature form of Christian caritas.
We began to grow out of the heady days of young, married love when we were unable to have a child. Since both of us are not the kind to reveal our wounds to one another with ease, we silently cared for each other in the midst of the first real suffering that we endured as a married couple. You invited me out of the self-pity that I had embraced, laying the groundwork for us to adopt our son and to consider a vocation to foster parent. You loved me into the possibility of new love. You made me think anew the vow of hospitality that we promised to the world on our wedding day, to let even our sufferings become an occasion of gift.
And now as the mother to a toddler in perpetual motion (adopted on the feast of the Holy Family in 2012), you have continued to form me in the kind of self-giving love that we pledged to one another on December 3rd, 2005. My impatience with our son when he whines and whines and whines stands in stark contrast to your tender response. Your care of him when he is sick has formed me to enter without delay in the messiness of the human condition (including vomit, fevers, and coughs given directly into my mouth). Learning from you how to parent has transformed me into a more patient teacher, co-worker, and I hope husband.
Through all of this, I have come to wonder what love means now, what it would be like to once again to declare before God, the Church, and the gathered assembly my intention to “take you, Kara, as my wife.” What it means to promise to “be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.” To love and honor you all the days of my life. At the time, this promise seemed so easy, a natural outgrowth of our dating and then engaged relationship. Loving you meant talking through the night; hanging out with friends; dreaming about our future. Loving and honoring you now has become something different. It is changing a diaper filled with noxious fumes just as I am about to leave for work (and could have kept it as a special gift for you). It is remembering to offer a kiss when I leave for work and arrive home. It is removing the snow from our driveway so that you don’t have to. It is the virtue of nuptial love, a habit of care, concern, and gratitude that has infused my being.
Of course, our love will continue to deepen in this way (if we seek ways to cultivate it). The suffering that we endured in not being able to have a child will not be our only occasion of pain in this life. There is the suffering of sickness and death of our fathers, our mothers, our remaining grandparents. There are the pains that will come as we watch our son (and, God-willing, future children) grow up, experiencing the difficulties of the world. There are both joys and sorrows unimaginable that we will experience together. And, eventually, one of us will most likely endure the death of one another, learning nonetheless to live the gift of our love anew for the redemption of the world. Our education into this love will continue.
And for this reason, I’m especially grateful that the heart of our relationship is our weekly reception of our Lord Jesus Christ on the table of the Word and the altar of Eucharistic sacrifice. We’re not remarkably strong people. We have no special formula to pass on to others seeking to have a marriage that lasts beyond a year or two. Rather, our marriage is informed by the gift of love that we must receive (even if we’re not interested in receiving it) so that we can become for one another and the world God’s healing presence.
I have become increasingly sure that my salvation is unfolding through this seemingly mundane, ten-year experiment that we have been carrying out. Although I’m often critical on the marriage preparation that we received, I’m not sure that anything could have prepared us to adequately live out the mystery of divine love that we now abide in.
Thus, on this ten year anniversary, I promise to love you anew in light of this nuptial and Eucharistic love that is our fundamental identity as those wedded in Christ Jesus. I promise to be the kind of husband and father, who loves unto the end. And I promise, most of all, to receive together with you God’s own love through prayer, through works of mercy, and through Eucharistic communion all the days of their lives. Only then will it be possible to continue becoming icons of God’s own love for each other, for our children, for our families, and for the world.
Thank you for letting me become this kind of love with you over the last ten years.
It is an odd fact about my life: I love small things. Small babies, small children, small dogs, tiny cabins, cozy rooms. And since my generation lives in a world driven by images, some better than others, (via Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, etc) in times when I fall into the stereotype of that image-driven generation, I have spent more time than I care to admit sitting around with girlfriends looking at pictures, or Buzzfeed posts, or YouTube videos, or stories. (Usually, they’re titled something along the lines of, “BABIES TRY LEMONS FOR THE FIRST TIME! THIS IS A HILARIOUS MUST-WATCH.”)
My own affinity for the small, my genuine and deep-seeded love of children, and my desire to protect the innocent is probably rooted in my own psyche and my own life story—but the affinity also stems from an amazement at the reality of the Incarnation. I never cease to marvel at the fact that the Savior of our world came to the world as a tiny, vulnerable, crying, needy infant. The Word who always was allowed Himself to be nurtured and loved into maturity. (That could be another piece, another day.)
And so all of that being said, The Lord of the Rings has always been a place where loves of different sorts collided for me. I find Tolkien’s writing beautifully crafted, his imagination fantastic, and his ability to reflect on deep truths in the lens of myth-making and story-telling absolutely brilliant. I also find hobbits entirely lovable. In fact, for a long time, I loved hobbits simply because of their smallness.
When it came time to write a senior thesis, I eventually settled on writing it about the way the chief four hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin grow in virtue throughout The Lord of the Rings. My chief encourager in this line of thinking stemmed from a place where JRR Tolkien commented that, “…the structure of The Lord of the Rings was, “planned to be ‘hobbito-centric,’ that is, primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble” (Letters 237). As I thought to myself about writing, the process went something like this:
A kind of spirituality of smallness, a’la Therese of Lisieux, check.
Lord of the Rings (a somewhat pathological obsession, my friends will testify), check.
Tolkien’s brilliance from his letters and interviews, check.
And I even managed to throw in something on patristic theories of the atonement. Relationship to historical Christianity, check.
Thoughts about vocation and call (one of my other obsessions)- check.
(An insight to me internally at this point: ALL OF THE THINGS I NERD OUT ABOUT WERE ABOUT TO BE IN ONE PLACE.)
“THIS IS SO GREAT!” I thought. “I’ll write all about hobbits, and why we love them, and why it’s beautiful that they’re small, and how important their smallness is to who they are, and yadda-yadda-yadda- yadda” (I can rant to myself for quite a long while). But sometimes, something happens when you write. Sometimes, you find that you were quite wrong in your instincts. Delving into a topic means that you have to permit your long-held ideas and conceptions to grow and mature. And at times, to be crushed. (Gulp.)
It turned out that my own instincts about the place of humility, smallness, and the little in Tolkien’s fictional world were (quite simply) wrong. Not all wrong, but mostly wrong. I had an idealistic and romantic vision in my head of Tolkien’s hobbits as a preferred race, a race we ought to love and value for nothing more than their small, quiet ways of life and their quaint customs. The work I did delving into Tolkien’s own thoughts quickly and totally crushed that tendency towards over-romanticization of the small and childlike in Middle Earth out of me. The Ring cycle is still definitely about the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble. BUT, I came to find, this means we ought to appreciate the hobbits who willingly and freely undergo the process of what it takes to be sanctified and ennobled; we should not overtly romanticize the entire race.
Even though the trilogy thematically focuses on the “sanctification of the humble,” the situation is not so simple as loving hobbits because they are small, comical, innocent people who enjoy gardening and over-eating and time with family. Tolkien’s hobbits are often endearing and comic characters, to be sure, but it is not endearing-ness alone that makes one a saint, or Tolkien’s fictional equivalent of one. Simply put, the hobbits of Middle Earth who become heroes are revered because they demonstrate the Church’s definition of sanctity; they exhibit levels of heroic virtue.
The Catechism, in a compilation of the Tradition, says that:
A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions (CCC 1803).
So the fictional saint-making in the context of The Lord of the Rings stems from how our hero hobbits reacted to adversity and what exactly they did with the roads set before them– not from an innate sanctification via innocence and ignorance. On those paths, the hobbits themselves were “enlarged” and “sanctified” for the sake of all of Middle Earth, because they continually tended toward and chose the good. (Though not always; saints in our real histories aren’t perfect either, but we can’t treat that here).
The hobbits Sam, Merry, and Pippin demonstrate a heroic faithfulness for the sake of friendship, coupled with a steadfast courage that persons of their size and background should never have had. Frodo demonstrates a willingness to die for the sake of the entirety of the people of Middle Earth. Effectively, they all are given grace (by an unnamed providence, in this fictional context) in order to continue persevering in the realities presented to them. Take, for example, the hobbit Sam’s reflection on heroes that he shares with Frodo:
“…We shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to just have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten….” (Tolkien 711).
It is true, unfortunately, that a post of this nature can’t possibly capture the entirety of the thesis– nor treat all of the nuances involved fairly. But suffice to say, the more I studied and expanded my understanding, the more I came to love Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. I saw just how much they all grew in courage, how much they sacrificed their own wants, totally abandoned any understanding of personal safety for the sake of friendship, loyalty, duty, or even a more complex understanding about the good of all. By the end of things, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin all actually had been “enlarged, or sanctified,” as Tolkien had desired to show, because they had acquired and continually acted with levels of courage, fortitude, and loyalty that absolutely none of the “Big People” ever expected hobbits to exemplify.
Although (alas) hobbits are fictional, many of us- myself very much included- feel ourselves to be hobbit-like in the scheme of the wider world. We feel small, or sometimes insignificant, or at the least unprepared for the path that has been set before our feet— for the illness of a family member, for the loss of a job, for loneliness in our own path, for difficulties with children, for the impossibility of a class load, for difficulty with responsibilities that “by rights” as Sam would say, we shouldn’t have. But understanding Tolkien’s thought means that if we understand ourselves as a “hobbit in faith,” we do not have the ability to flee to our respective Shires. We cannot content ourselves with pipe-smoking, gardening, entertaining family, and the like. There’s a huge key here to understanding vocation: understanding how we are called to respond to God and the realities of our lives does not mean constantly longing for peace and quiet and a return to (or discovery of) a place of safety.
For evil to be defeated in this world, we have to cooperate with the hand of Providence, even when that means the Way before us is frighteningly unknown or dangerous or not what we expected. To be a hobbit in faith means that we courageously continue, whatever the road before us, knowing that if we keep trying to follow the will of God, good may come of our current Road—even if this means a great deal of suffering and scarring on our part. Sam’s thought on this in the darkest of times communicates this more eloquently:
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tower high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Tolkien 922).
Evil, and evil’s affinity for self-deception, will mean that child-like humility and a recognition of one’s smallness may allow for the grace of God to work in ways that will surprise all of us. The Road does not ever quite end, as Tolkien says; “it goes on and on.” It is our part to follow, and to keep following that Road that is at our feet, knowing that Christ is Himself our Road and our Way. We are all homo-viator: man on the journey, pilgrims seeking heaven. Thus, to be a hobbit in faith means to accept the Road that one’s feet have been set on, even if we in no way sought out our particular path, or even if we fear where the Road might be leading in the short term. And so we accept our Road, knowing that Christ our light, Christ our Way, Christ the beautiful, and Christ the victorious seeks us as we continue journeying Home.
The fourth annual Center for Liturgy Symposium is off and running (after a rather soggy start to our evening with thunderstorms taking over South Bend). Our opening session by Msgr. Michael Heintz introduced the major theme of the Symposium. Namely, the original vocation of humanity is not simply what we do within the world (marriage, priesthood, single life) but our vocation for divine worship. That we were made for worship, and the Eucharistic liturgy of the Church brings us back toward this original vocation.
It is from this original vocation of self-sacrificial love that women and men within the Church live out their particular vocations as acts of worship. Msgr. Heintz emphasized that the problem with most forms of Christian life today is that we live our vocations as if they are about us. As he noted, ordination to the priesthood is not the conclusion to the spiritual life. Likewise, marriage is not simply about our relationship but it is about the salvation of the entire world. The sanctification of our spouses, our children, our parishioners, the entire human race. This broad sense of our vocation to worship and thus to love humanity as divine gift opens us up at the Symposium to think not only about marriage and priesthood but both consecrated and single life as well. Although it is still early in our conference, it strikes me that thinking through our first vocation as an occasion for worship makes room for both a transitional and permanent vocation to the single life. That human flourishing is not only found in marriage or the “vowed” celibate state. That because we are made for self-sacrificial gift, that the single person can perform this “liturgical” love according to their own particular genius in the world. To concretize the claim, I have a single friend, who is willing to be present with the children of her friends at the drop of a hat. She is in a very real way a gift to her married friends, and her state (although it may be temporary), makes possible a unique form of love in the world. The theological implications of the single life are still being explored, as Msgr. Heintz noted, and I think our Symposium has already been enriched by thinking through this.
In addition, of course, a variety of our guests have already noted the “challenges” that come with promoting these vocations in modern life. Msgr. Heintz gave us essential categories for thinking through a catechesis of “liturgical” vocation. That is, part of the problem is precisely that we imagine our lives as simply our own; that our vocation is simply about us. Rather, our vocation is meant as a gift to the Church and to the world. How to carry out this formation in the modern world…well, that’s what we’ll be considering over the coming days.
This morning, we turn to a Scriptural exploration of Jesus Christ as Bridegroom. This afternoon, we’ll be posting a summary of this session.
Also, if you want to Tweet this out, be sure to use the hashtag #NDSymposium2015
This past fall, I experienced one of the fearsome nightmares of most college students: my laptop began to die a slow and painful death. When it came to the point of not saving my work, or moving so slowly that I could not do my work, I started panicking. My life as a student and the tangible witness of what I have do learned, and really all that I’ve managed to do in the last few years is all on this machine. I love to write! And so without my computer, I feel like a carpenter without tools, or a surgeon with no hands.
Enter in the engineers. Most of my extended family has an engineering background, and so this means some funny things for family gatherings. We discuss computer chips and 3D printers at Thanksgiving dinner (3D printers made the conversation three years in a row; I kept track).
We take apart old computers and play with circuit boards for fun, and nearly everyone (even those of us who aren’t engineers) generally know what’s going on in the tech world due to the engineers and those who aren’t engineers but still managed to inherit engineering brains. While I’ve long been awed by the things that many of my family members seem to know instinctively, my computer crisis gave me a reason to appreciate their place in the world even more than normal. My laptop was healed, just in time for me to write 50some pages and do all the research I needed to do for finals season.
That was the windup, and here’s the pitch: I will never forget the text my cousin Chris sent in to the family group message, after I sent a celebratory message proclaiming the laptop fully cured.
His quote there had my brain buzzing instantly about the idea of vocations. Chris’ comment- whether he realized it or not- showed an insight that said his role in the world and the gifts that he has- his role of a “fixer,” bound-to-be-a-brilliant-engineer, is somehow intertwined with mine: the cousin who is a student, a writer, and an aspiring catechist.
Now, Chris would not be offended if I said that he was not the most theologically minded high schooler on the planet. Theologian he may not be, but he’s wise about a lot, and his statement made me start thinking about the universal call to holiness, and yet the particularity of the vocations that God gives each one of us. My cousins’ (and dad’s/grandpa’s/uncles’) tech geniuses have helped support my work as a student and writer before; this isn’t an isolated incident. Maybe, in turn, the way that I can support the engineers is to hope that a few of the things I write help the Christophers of the world to understand that this “religion stuff” isn’t just for a class in school or sometimes on a Sunday morning, but rather is about responding to God’s love by the way we live our whole lives. If Chris’ job was to help restore me to my full capacities and functions as a Theology major, maybe part of my work is to help instill in him an understanding of realities and calls outside the tech world and to show that it is just as necessary as the work of the engineers. [Disclaimer: Chris gave me permission to use and twist his words in this piece].
Chris’ statement acknowledged an understanding of the importance of different types of work, but it also made me think about the fact that we have different gifts but the same call and destination ultimately. There has been a lot of discussion about this- what we call the universal call to holiness- especially since Vatican II. By virtue of our Baptism, all Christians are called to respond to the triune God who has out of love created, redeemed, and saved us:
“The classes and duties of life are many, but holiness is one—that sanctity which is cultivated by all who are moved by the Spirit of God, and who obey the voice of the Father and worship God the Father in spirit and in truth. These people follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory. Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity” (Lumen Gentium, 41).
Maybe my cousins don’t consider helping their technologically deficient cousin a work of charity, but I certainly do, and it is a classic example of a way in which they used the gifts that they have been given and worked to acquire. They use and will continue to use their gifts to do great things. And they can do it and be holy, too. Holiness does not mean boringness. Sometimes we joke at home about the “dark side” being more fun, but what’s more exciting than literally being a part of the side of good to fight and save the whole world? C.S. Lewis once made the comment, “‘How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints” (Mere Christianity).
Sometimes, though, there is such a tendency within many of us- myself included- to delegate holiness to the saints of old, to nuns and monks in garb that seems foreign to our own; at best, sometimes we delegate holiness to the “nice, boring guys” historically. And yet among the canonized communion of saints we find carpenters, doctors, writers, artists, teachers, nurses, priests, soldiers… and that’s just the start. The point is that to be a saint does not mean to become boringly identical; it actually means to be sometimes startlingly unique and yet working for the same goal of glorifying God.
This what I mean by the “particularity” of vocation. The God who has created each of us in His image and likeness has always recognized that we are unique individuals. We all are called to the same thing- holiness, and we are all called to same final destination- heaven, but we aren’t all called to make our way there in the exact same way. We have our own personalities, our own families, our own life stories, our own gifts, and our own messiness. The magnificent thing is the fact that our Lord wants all of us, and can use all in our uniqueness of us for His glory.
As Chris recognized (or at least, like I’ve argued that he recognized) our vocations and our gifts are given by God to support one another and yet can all those different gifts be used together to help sanctify the whole world. I’m going to let St. John Paul II’s papal exhortation Christifideles Laici have the last word here on how to think about the particularity of our own vocations. It’s a lesson for the engineers of the world, the writers of the world, and all of us who fall somewhere in between:
“The “world” thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation, because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ… They [the laity] are not called to abandon the position that they have in the world. Baptism does not take them from the world at all, as the apostle Paul points out: “So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God” (1Cor 7:24). On the contrary, He entrusts a vocation to them that properly concerns their situation in the world. The lay faithful, in fact, “are called by God so that they, led by the spirit of the Gospel, might contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially in this way of life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they manifest Christ to others.”
To live out our call to sanctify this world, the Church militant needs the engineers, the doctors, the writers, the teachers, the artists, the lawyers, and everyone in between. All of our collective work can be sanctified and participate in Christ’s work of leading the world to its proper end: that of heaven, if we all remember the source of our gifts and for whose glory we should offer our lives.
What do you get when a high school theology teacher marries theology grad student?
A ton of religious art.
Get it? If not, a quick look around my apartment would show you that this isn’t just a bad joke, it’s the reality of what your friends think to buy when you major in theology. Outside of the dishware and bed sets that you register for at the domestic wonderland that is Bed, Bath and Beyond, unwrapping wedding presents can be a fun indicator of what your guests really think of you (I’m pretty rotten at giving original gifts and as such truly appreciate someone who possesses the skill). My wife Rylee and I soon discovered just how lucky we were in the company we keep. The general theme of gifts seemed to be religious art and wine and, lest our apartment resemble a bachelor pad, Rylee has insisted our décor emphasize the former rather than the latter. As such the holy statues, icons, nativity sets, and crosses that our friends and family sent our way have filled our little apartment with an intentionally Catholic décor, provided us with the opportunity to grow spiritually as we settle in domestically, and has made what were at first blank white walls radiate the comfort of home and Christ.
Throughout this time one image has begun to stand out above the rest. A particularly common theme, very appropriate as a wedding present for a young married couple, were images depicting the Holy Family. I have long had a love for Our Lady and Talladega Nights taught me the theological magnitude of the Baby Jesus. But as I’ve sat reading or writing on our couch, something else, or rather someone else, has increasingly drawn my attention from the icon hung on our wall. A figure generally relegated to the background has increasingly pressed forward and become the focal point of the image in my mind. More and more I have found myself drifting off in thought, eyes transfixed on the tall bearded figure of St. Joseph, lovingly embracing his wife and adopted son.
I can’t really claim to be unacquainted with St. Joseph. Having attended St. Joseph Grade School and St. Joseph High School, both of which are located in St. Joseph County and situated on the St. Joseph River, its safe to say I’ve heard of him once or twice. Even one of my favorite saints (evidence of 9 years of Holy Cross education), St. André Bessette, C.S.C., was known for his remarkable devotion to St. Joseph. And yet despite my best efforts and the cards being stacked completely in his favor, I’ve never really been able to connect with the world’s most famous carpenter.
This all began to change following our relocation to Massachusetts this August. The day after we were married, Rylee and I loaded everything we owned into a U-Haul truck. Romantic, I know. Then the next morning at 5 AM we rolled out of South Bend and headed for Boston. Before we had been married a month we had moved 1,000 miles across the country, settled in a new apartment, Rylee had started a new job, and I was knee deep in Karl Rahner, at work on my master’s degree. Talk about a whirlwind.
To say the process was at times disorienting would be a dramatic understatement. Trying to find any semblance of stability seemed impossible because everything about our new life together had to be handled in the short term, as temporary. Rylee and I were living in Boston, for now. I was working toward my MTS, for now. We were just starting out as a family of two, for now. But in what felt like less than a week the conversations among friends shifted from why we came to BC to where we wanted to do PhDs. I was just beginning the marathon that is grad school and had no real answer to the question, “What are you doing after this?” We had no idea where we would be in two years, let alone what I’d be doing at that point. But whatever the future held, it seemed impossible to see the MTS as anything but transitory, a waiting room for the real world that lay beyond.
On top of all this was the reality that I wasn’t just a student and this wasn’t just a continuation of my 4 years of college. I was a family man now and had as much of a responsibility to another person as I did to myself. This was one of the hardest places for me to find firm ground precisely because we were trying to figure out just what it meant to be a family when there are only two of us. I had so many wonderful examples in my life of what it meant to be a great father, but what I had failed to prepare for was how to be a great husband.
And so I sat, eyes locked on the image of Joseph. I didn’t seek him out, I didn’t know why my prayers turned to him. All I knew was that one night long after my wife went to bed exhausted from a day of teaching high schoolers, I sat up willing myself to read, increasingly aware that not only did academic success determine my livelihood, but also that of my family. My attention drifted upward, past the pages of the book in my hands to the far wall, and came to rest on Joseph, holding his wife with a strong, stable, and determined love that I knew was never overcome and never defeated by any adversity that came his way.
I finished my reading and went to bed. After I turned out my light, a lone image stood silhouetted against the white walls of our bedroom. Another image of the Holy Family, this one a beautiful wood carving, it sits atop our dresser and is the last thing I see every night before I shut my eyes. Carved from a single piece of wood, Joseph isn’t just the background; he is the canvas on which his family is grounded. Mary is carved from his side and the two are united as one. I paused for a moment as I looked at the statue, turned and put my arms around my wife. She is my stability. “This one at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Together with her, I will build my family. My vows to her, made before God, are the commitment of a lifetime and the focal point of my life’s work.
Today is the feast of St. Joseph, Husband of Mary. He was such an extraordinary husband that the Church proclaimed an annual feast to celebrate it. We don’t just remember him because he married an immaculate woman. We remember him because he lived out his vocation so completely that it brought him to God. He does not just blend in as the third person of the Holy Family. He shines out to husbands everywhere, holding up the example of how to fully commit oneself to the vocation and sacrament that is marriage.
In a time when nothing about where I am, what I am doing, or where my life is headed seems certain or stable, Joseph reminds me to look at the walls of this apartment, and most especially to the woman who made them a home, and remember that this is my vocation. Despite the fluidity the next few years may contain in terms of location and occupation, regardless of whether our family expands in 1 year or in 10, my commitment and my role is modeled for me perfectly in the life of St. Joseph.
“The public life of the Lord lasted at the utmost a brief three years; some say scarcely two. But precisely for this reason how significant the preceding thirty years in which he did not teach, did not struggle, did not work miracles. There is almost which attracts the imagination more than the prodigious silence of these thirty years.” (Romano Guardini, The Lord, 17 )
In Romano Guardini’s biography of Christ, he draws upon this essential, fundamental oddity of Christ’s life that we tend to accept too easily. Jesus Christ, Savior of the World, spent roughly 90% of His life on earth in obscurity, anonymity, and relative lack of action. This period of unproductivity is a scandal to our production-minded, results-driven culture. But after one isolated adolescent incident, preaching to His elders in the temple as a twelve-year-old, Jesus retires completely from the public spotlight. His vocation, for thirty years, is a quiet one of preparation for His mission. His mission, which began as soon as the nascent Christ-child implanted in the wall of the Virgin’s womb. As soon as God became flesh, the mission of Christ began; on the occasion of the Incarnation, the work of salvation had begun.
And yet, having been entrusted with the most vital mission in the history of the human race, there was a necessary time of waiting. These thirty years at Nazareth are a crucial period of silence and introspection, a time in which Christ grows in “wisdom and age and grace with God and men” (Lk 2:52). This period of preparation took up the bulk of Christ’s time on earth. Imagine the privilege of Mary and Joseph, to be the only humans privy to this precious time of growth, the joy of being elected the two humans with whom the eternal Logos chooses to waste His time with here on earth.
“After Jesus’ return from the solitude of the desert and before his first public proclamation, between past and future, stands a moment big with the unclouded purity of the present. The protective aegis of childhood and youth is gone; work and struggle in the field of historical reality have not yet begun.” (Guardini, 31)
As I begin to enter this new stage of my life, the “post-grad” stage, the “young adult” or “emerging adult” stage, I find myself attracted to both these mysteriously silent thirty years of Christ and to our current liturgical season. No longer a child or a student, finally free of all the safety nets of youth, I find myself sent forth into the world, yet the work of my own personal mission in life still eludes me. My vocation right now is a sort of Advent.
During this Advent season of my life, the gifts that I have been given are being refined, practiced, new talents discovered, and I have become consoled by the thought that this is a period of preparation. Right now, I find myself in a necessary period of anticipation and preparation. What work am I truly meant to do? What career will I find that will take all these puzzle pieces of gifts and talents, hopes and desires, strengths and weaknesses within my heart and turn them into an opportunity to give of myself? Where will I find that final, permanent community—a religious community, a Catholic Worker, a spouse with whom to build a family—in which I will dwell? My world is still mostly made up of when’s and until’s. I am no longer a child, no longer a student—one whose vocation is formation of self—and yet I have not yet settled into a career, community. While I take up the work of the present, I am very conscious of the fact that this work is for the present only; the future still remains unclear.
I am in an Advent period of my life. I know that all the gifts that I will need lie latent inside of me. And I know that my vocation is now. Advent reminds me that my task is in the present. As I anticipate all the desires of my heart, I am called to live out my vocation of self-gift here in the interim, in what seems sometimes to be an ante-chamber to the rest of my life.
But if I can learn nothing else from the silent thirty years Christ spent in Nazareth, it is that these periods of waiting, these times of preparation for a mission to be accomplished and anticipation for the arrival of a love that will change everything, these periods are not just rests in the music of our lives. These periods of waiting are fundamental to our vocation. They are instrumental in shaping us into who we will become, into the fully-developed human beings who can complete the task given to them. What we decide to do with these Advents, how we decide to spend these waiting periods, determines the fruitfulness of the rest of our lives.
In her lovely meditation on Mary, Caryll Houselander writes about the lack of fruitfulness in human work in the industrial age. She writes,
“The great tragedy that has resulted from modern methods of industry is that the creativeness of Advent has been left out of work.” (The Reed of God, 64)
Our modern conception of work is no longer an image of a craftsman engaging in a meditative and introspective process of creation; work, to the modern imagination, usually means an impersonal and efficient process of production. Thus, our vocations are not end-goals to achieve as efficiently as possible, before our final deadline arrives. Rather, our vocations are slow growths into the mystery of self-gift, through patient endurance and constant practice. These Advents are where the real growth occurs, where we learn to love while still in suspense, where we learn to hope for what is already among us, but not yet fully realized.
As we enter Advent, I find myself pondering this image of Christ: God incarnate already in the world, dwelling intimately among us, yet not yet publicly arrived. He is present in the world, yet He has not yet revealed Himself to the world. During Advent, we often think of Mary, bearing Christ in her womb, waiting for the day of His birth. But these thirty years of Christ’s life among the Holy Family are also a symbol of Advent. The world still waits for the coming of the Kingdom, for the revelation of the Messiah. The Lord is already dwelling among them, but the fullness of His glory is not yet revealed. Christ’s time in Nazareth is a sacred, precious time of preparation for the day when He will approach the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan, and the world will hear for the first time: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29), and we will know that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Maranatha!
As human beings, we love being told that we did something well. We love knowing that we accomplished something, no matter how small. Affirmations of our doing define our development in many ways: the gold star stickers we received in grade school stuck with many of us for a long time, particularly those of us with type-A, overachieving, book-smart tendencies. We recognize one another for actions, words, and ways of living.
It is all too easy to allow this interpretation of affirmation and identity to distort our understanding of love. Love quickly becomes something earned, something merited. Our goodness is grounded in how much we have offered to the world and in what capacity; our person is defined by how we choose to live, where we spend our time, what we do. We come to see love as something to be deserved, a reward for our accomplishments.
In ‘the real world,’ most interactions do tend to occur through this lens of achievement and are a function of the identity we construct and project of ourselves. One’s very being, the most human self, is of little relevance, compared to tangible actions and words that seek and deserve thanks and praise. This understanding of love, one that is far too weak, is thus only intensified. There are few medicines for this twisted vision of being.
A visit to the place where we feel most at home, however, can begin to reorient this vision. The place where we are most fully ourselves is the place where actions and doing matter a great deal less. We recognize this place as home because we know how to be there, with its familiar order of things. Home is the place where our hearts are warmed simply because we are there, existing and being the human creatures we are, created in and for love. We are reminded that we have already been called and claimed.
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)
For the Christian, the reorientation begins with the fact that he is not called for his action, but called to action.
“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born
I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am
only a boy.’
But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,’ says the Lord.’” (Jeremiah 1:4-8)
Love is not offered as an affirmation of our doing; rather, our lives are meant to be responses in gratitude to the love that God freely shares in the creation and continued affirmation of our very being. The Christian vocation is to live into the fullness of this reality, opening oneself to this freely given love and seeking to offer that same love in thanksgiving for the gift of being. The affirmation of the beauty of the human being is already present in God’s very creation; the life of the Christian is not intended to cultivate this affirmation, but rather a gratitude and praise freely expressed in love.
“While on earth this is our calling: learn to bear the beams of love. We are sent to live for others, sent on mission from above; Though we tremble at love’s burden,
it is easy, it is light; As we seek eternal splendor, may our souls with love burn bright.” —Peter Fisher Hesed, Partners in the Mission
The words of Peter Hesed’s anthem Partners in the Mission again remind us of the need for this reorientation.
Our lives must be an offering of thanksgiving, a response to the Christian mission of self-giving love. We are sent into the world that we may learn to carry this love and joy with us. The weight of this mission to be God’s love can seem overwhelmingly heavy, but, in reality, it is incredibly light. We are loved and affirmed in our very being, not burdened by a task of creating and earning love. Our vocation and a life of seeking its realization are a response to our belovedness and the gift of the human capacity to love. The Christian life must be offered in gratitude for the freely offered gift of life, love, and God Himself.
We need to remind ourselves of this and to be the reminder of this to one another. In our living, we must remember that we are still learning to bear this love that already is and has already been offered to us. In our discernment and seeking to discover ourselves, we need to tremble a little less and love a little more, for the greatest affirmation comes from God in our very creation and being.
On this Solemnity of All Saints, we would like to present a compilation of past wisdom shared on this particular feast here on Oblation. As the saints offer us examples of God’s love concretized in rich and varied lives, so each of the posts below holds up different facets of this rich feast.
Second, Katherine Mahon reflects on the celebration of the feast of All Saints Day itself in “‘All Holy Men and Women”: The Example of the Saints.”
Finally, Ben Wilson contemplates the lives of the saints as individually and collectively presenting a rich icon of the inexhaustible love of Christ in “The Mosaic of Christ: A Reflection on All Saints Day.”
Hope ’15 TheologyUndergraduateFellow,
Center for Liturgy
As many of you have probably figured out already, I love to start thinking about liturgical and theological topics through the lens of popular media, movies, and music—things we are exposed to on a daily basis. This kind of constant thinking leads me to do bizarre things like bellow, “HEY!!! THAT’S MORAL RELATIVISM!!” when my friends start belting out the song, “Let It Go” from Frozen at the tops of their voices. (You might question why, with all the bellowing over pop culture, I still have friends. I often wonder the same.)
Over the last five years, a folk rock band named Mumford and Sons has proven to be the most fruitful source of media-led pondering sessions for me. Mumford and Sons makes this process easy, because the band often either subtly or not-so-subtly quotes Scripture, Shakespeare, G.K. Chesterton, and the Classics all the time. (The lead singer, Marcus Mumford, was a Classics major in college. If every lead singer of every band went to college and majored in Classics, popular music would be so much more meaningful!)
Today I would like to think about the song, “Awake My Soul” and the ways this song can help us think through our human identities and vocations. St. Elizabeth and St. Peter will later help us to do this in a deeper way, but today we will dip our toes in to the matter by thinking about the song lyrics.
Even if you know the song already, read over the lyrics and chew on them. And then maybe listen to it, too.
The lyrics to the song, “Awake My Soul” are as follows:
How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show
Lend me your hand and we’ll conquer them all
But lend me your heart and I’ll just let you fall
Lend me your eyes, I can change what you see
But your soul you must keep, totally free
Har har, har har, har har, har har
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show
Har har, har har, har har, har har
In these bodies we will live; in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life
In these bodies we will live; in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker
You were made to meet your maker
The first thing that might jump to our heads after listening to the song or reading the lyrics is the fact that theologically, the basis for the phrase “Awake My Soul” probably comes straight from Psalm 57: 9-12, which cycles through the Liturgy of the Hours in Morning Prayer.
“Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn. I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.”
If we gave ourselves an imaginary assignment in which we had to use this song in order to decide how to define humanity’s identity and humanity’s vocation, I think the definitions that this song best supports are “homo adorans,” meaning “man who worships,” and “homo viator,” which translates to “man on the journey.” But let’s put the song-pondering on hold for a moment and think about defining ourselves, our vocations, and the point of our existence in general. Why might that matter?
Thinking through some other ways of how the human race gets defined can help us understand this. The scientific community refers to humans as “homo sapiens.” Consider, for example, how much scientific, medical, and psychological research focuses on the human brain, thought processes, and why all of that matters for health and quality of life for people. For another example, Karl Marx called humanity “homo faber”—man who works. Ultimately he saw the human person—the worker—as a cog in the machine of a society of production. And the translation of the Greek “zóon politikón” into “homo politicus” tells us about what Aristotle thought about how humanity related to the world—as a political animal that organizes. This Wikipedia article lists somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty different terms that have been used to identify the human species in the recent and not-so-recent past.
All of these different terminologies that have been used over the centuries have real-life consequences. What we think and the assumptions we make (consciously or unconsciously) affect the ways we live and the choices we make. When someone makes claims about how to define humanity, the identity, reality, and point of the human person is reduced to a mere few words. In the same sense, what we call ourselves ought to matter for the way in which we think about our own identities and our own vocations.
Now, let’s go back to the song and to thoughts about “homo adorans” (man who worships) and “homo viator” (man on the journey).
Why might this song support a definition of the human person as “homo adorans”? The phrase after “Awake my soul” in Psalm 57 is: “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.” Though that particular verse from the Psalm is not cited in the song, it is an implied theme. In worship, when our souls are awakened, this what we do: we give thanks; we continually sing praises to God. The way the soul would be awakened would necessarily be by praise. So, rooting human identity in relationship to worship of the Maker would be supported. And it’s understood, too, that we don’t always pray for our souls to be awakened. After all, the song begins with a reflection that our hearts are fickle and our eyes are woozy; we don’t always choose the good (we are fickle) and our souls need some corrective lenses because our foci are sometimes wrongly oriented and we cannot see the Beatific Vision. So, we pray that our souls might be awakened, that we may root ourselves in praise and thanksgiving and adoration of our Creator.
And if, as the song states immediately after “awake my soul,” the ultimate goal is to “meet your Maker,” it is an acknowledgement that although one’s heart might be fickle or one’s eyes might be woozy, humanity in its day-to-day activities (vocational activity) tries to journey toward its Maker. This is where support for “homo viator,” man on the journey, comes into play. And unsurprisingly, the two ways of thinking are related: in order to continue the journey towards the Maker in the capacity as homo viator, human beings must invest their love and thereby their lives in their Maker in the identity of worshiping: homo adorans. If humanity is made to worship, people must realize that they can only be lent others’ hands and not their whole hearts, because ultimately hearts should be oriented toward the Maker. Human identity (in worship) and humanity’s vocation (to journey home toward the Creator) constantly play off of each other. We pray that our souls might be awakened, so that we may praise and adore our Creator, and we hope that that as we praise, we might journey continually closer to our heavenly Home.
Next time, with help from Sts. Elizabeth and Peter, we will think more deeply about the terms “homo adorans” and “homo viator” and why these two definitions might be helpful ways to think about how we can live liturgically.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, Institute for Church Life