Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Reality, Love, and Suffering of Vocation

Hey there, Coffee Talkers,

What's presented below includes an abridged and edited version of an old post that I came across and realized that I needed to hear again and meditate on at this stage in my spiritual journey. When I write about the faith I see that God is often speaking most directly to me even if I'm answering a question that someone else has asked, and if a few people out there have been also been helped in their life of faith by my writings then I'll count that as an added blessing. So here's one on the concept of vocation because I need to revisit it, and maybe you do, too:
When Catholic Christians talk about vocations, most people think only about priests and nuns, but a vocation refers to a person’s calling from God. This means that every one of us has a vocation, or a divine calling, and the fact is that most of us are not called to be priests and nuns. In my own spiritual journey I have reflected a great deal on the concept of vocation, and have summed up God’s lessons to me in three major themes.
1. Vocation is always rooted in reality, and in the present moment.
Have you ever known someone who was always 'discerning' their vocation, or a person who says, “I’ll pray about that” as a way of side-stepping even the most simple decisions or commitments? Don't get me wrong; discernment and prayers are very important, but I think that sometimes we use prayer as an excuse to be perpetually non-committal and confuse discerning with fanciful daydreaming. These daydreams don't necessarily have to take the form of something glamorous, for even the dream of suffering or martyrdom can be heroic in the mind's eye.
Ultimately, the most important aspect of any vocation is rooted in our present reality – God is not going to ask us to neglect our obligations to our current state in life to pursue another. A widowed mother is not likely to be ‘called’ to a cloistered convent while her children are still young and relying upon her for their care and formation, for example. Each of us is called to continue dedicating our lives fully to those tasks at hand until such a time as the Lord presents something else to us, puts something or someone clearly in our path and asks us to take a different direction. When that happens, we should act on it, and promptly. Until that time, however, there is no use spending countless hours (or even minutes!) thinking about what could be or what might have been. Vocation is reality, plain and simple, and often that involves our lives being very different than we might have wished them to be.
2. Vocation is always rooted in love, and in loving again and again.
Whenever I think of vocation, I think of little St. Therese of Lisieux, a young cloistered Carmelite nun whose feast we will soon celebrate on October 1. Therese wanted to be so many things, but in the end realized that her vocation was love. What does this mean? Some think Therese to have been a syrup-y sweet little saint who always had life easy, and so her joy and happiness and vocation of ‘love’ must have come to her with ease, as well. However, anyone who has read her ‘Story of A Soul’ can assure you that this was not the case, nor is it the case with any sincere disciple of Christ. No, we are asked to choose love and to live love again and again in the face of countless sufferings, as Therese did.
The act of loving in the face of hatred, persecution, malignment, and every form of human suffering is a discipline that is possible not by human effort alone, but by grace. Just when we have reached the end of our own strength, it is then we are called to love again, and to be willing to take the risk of loving not just once, not twice, but an infinite number of times. I suspect that this is part of what the Psalmist is referring to when he says, "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts." Do you hear God's voice, even in the midst of your pain and suffering? Open your heart to the possibility of loving again, to hurting again, to being healed again, and then once again to loving.
3. Vocation means being God's, even on the Cross.

Anyone who preaches a Gospel solely based on prosperity and success in this life preaches a lie; we must realize that the Christian vocation means following Christ even unto death, and that means accepting the Cross. If we are humble enough, many people of faith will admit that while we may have followed a number of paths to which we surely felt God calling us, we ended up in a place entirely different than the place of our imagining or choosing. Even in the face of uncertainty, embarrassment, disillusionment, pain, and suffering we are always God's, and God is always present, always. 'Being God's' is the one vocation that never ends. For both in life and death we belong to God, and we know that the story of the Cross is one of unimaginable and seemingly senseless suffering bearing the greatest fruit of redemption that the world has ever known.

As always, thanks for stopping by, and be assured of my prayers.

Peace and all good,

Thursday, September 18, 2014

On Love Expressed and the Christian Life

Dear Coffee Talkers,

I was recently reading an article talking about the importance of expressing our love for our family and friends, and citing some examples of ways to express our affection rather than just assuming these relationships would continue to run on auto-pilot from the efforts we'd perhaps made in the past or simply from an ongoing feeling of mutual affection, un-fueled by current expressions of kindness. Some of the ideas for showing our affection included sending a text message or an e-mail, giving the person a phone call, and sending a letter or a simple gift.

While I liked the idea of the article, there was something about it that seemed incomplete to me. In grappling with what ideas might be missing, I considered an important thought about the Christian life and love: that true love expressed always seeks the good of the other and is sacrificial, not selfish. This is not to suggest that the ideas of communicating with another person in simple ways or sending cards and gifts is not part of an expression of someone's affection, but to point out that, despite Hallmark's persuasive marketing scheme, perhaps simply giving someone a greeting card does not truly represent 'the very best' that love has to offer.

I think it's fair to say that most people have experienced the development of a new friendship, a fresh crush, or a blossoming romance and the ambivalent emotions that can accompany this experience. At first, we might see the other person entirely through rose colored glasses, so to speak, and we can be easily carried away by the excitement that accompanies every smile, text message, phone call, and card we receive. Soon, however, we may find that the relationship is put to some kind of test and that it has either grown stale or has become one-sided. Maybe we are the only one sending texts and cards, or perhaps the other person is giving 'gifts' that do not really consider our good but are intended to manipulate and get something from us that they want. We may realize that one or the other of us has a need that the other party is not willing or able to meet, and we realize that perhaps this was never really love at all but instead an arrangement of feel-good convenience at best and mutual using at worst.

While some may think that hate is the opposite of love, a Christian worldview offers the possibility that using another person is that which is most contrary to loving them, or caring for their ultimate good. When I merely use someone to meet my own selfish needs, true love can never enter into the picture.  I must stop using, and being used, if I ever hope to enter into a truly loving relationship, one in which both parties truly consider the good of the other and enter into a love of reciprocal self-gift.

In Christianity, we see this ultimate model of sacrificial, selfless, and life-giving love in action: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son..." This is agape love, the love of self-sacrifice. This type of love does not seek to take anything, and while it is open to receiving back an offering of love from the beloved, it never demands or requires reciprocity for its gift to be given.

Next time we consider how to express our love for our family and friends, let us truly consider the needs of the other person, place their good above our own, and put into action this love of self-sacrifice. Let us be willing to give the gift of our very selves, and to take the chance that even when sacrificial love is unrequited it is its own reward because it is the most true to our highest calling and destiny. Because when we care enough to send the very best, it will rarely involve a greeting card but will always require self-sacrifice, a sacrifice that will bear fruit in both this life and in eternity.

As always, thanks for stopping by. Be assured of my prayers.

Peace and all good,

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

On Failed Prayers, Action, and Waiting: Opening A Spiritual Door

Dear Coffee Talkers,

A journalist recently asked Pope Francis, "Given what has happened in Gaza, was the Prayer for Peace held in the Vatican on June 8 a failure?" Pope Francis responded by saying it was not a failure, but rather that "the door of prayer was opened." He continued by saying that the encounter of prayer "is a fundamental step of the human attitude" toward God's gift of peace and that while "the smoke of the bombs and the war do not let one see the door ... the door was left open at that moment."

The two ideas that struck me most in this interview were the concepts of failed prayer and of opening the door of prayer. I believe that many of us can relate to the experience of a 'failed' or seemingly unanswered prayer and the accompanying pain that goes with the experience. Sadly, this is why many have abandoned the practice of any faith or prayer at all -- the risk of being hurt again by God is simply too much to bear. This seems to be part of the experience of the prophet Jeremiah who in the midst of intense sufferings and an interior crisis proclaims, "You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped...All day long I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me." Thankfully for Jeremiah, that was not the end of the story, but his feeling of being misled and mocked as a result of his efforts at prayer and faithfulness ring in the hearts of the faithful through the centuries.

The untimely death of a loved one; the loss of a job; the end of a romantic relationship or long-time friendship; a breach of trust within a family that can perhaps be forgiven but not forgotten -- where was God in the midst of these situations? Were our prayers a failure? And if so, why bother continuing to pray at all?

The image of a door being opened, and then remaining open, as a result of our prayer is very powerful, especially in considering some of the more tragic moments of our lives. The first way that the image moves me is that the idea of the door being opened reminds me that, while the work of grace is God's, I have a part to play in the divine action by walking toward and through that door. Yes, prayer is important, but in most cases if it is unaccompanied by any action on my part it is unlikely to bear much fruit. While certain situations do not allow for a great deal of human action, most of the time we should be moved by the Spirit of God to do something practical that would move us toward the result of our prayer.

The second way that the image of the door of prayer inspires me is that it causes me to consider how many doors are still open from prayers that I have already initiated but given up on. There are times where the human action accompanying my prayer is flawed or insufficient, or where I simply have to wait upon the Lord and for much longer than I am willing. Maybe I think that prayer failed or was unanswered, and I'm so busy looking at the 'smoke' left behind by a series of unfortunate events that were simply not according to my plans. But God has not given up, and the door remains open, perhaps to be answered in a different way and  time than I was originally prepared for. That is part of the mystery of grace --  freely given, wholly unexpected, and far surpassing our wildest dreams.

Am I ready to look again for that open door, to open myself to the risk of prayer even after being burned before? When I ask this question, I hear the words that the Lord spoke to Jeremiah after the prophet's crisis of faith: "For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for woe, plans to give you a future full of hope."

As always, thanks for stopping by. Be assured of my prayers.

Peace and all good,