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Posts Tagged ‘Catholic Charities’

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Vocation:  A Personal Transformation

In his book The Second Mountain David Brooks offers a helpful distinction between a career and a vocation.  They’re very different, he writes, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that each requires a very different kind of preparation.

When we’re searching for a career, he suggests, we draw up an inventory of our talents.  As best we can we identify those things that we’re good at.  Then we weigh those talents and decide which are likely to get us a decent-paying or satisfying job.  Once we’ve done all that, we dedicate a chunk of time and energy that will prepare us for that career.

A vocation is something entirely different.  It’s not something that we can prepare or study for, and in fact it can seem almost unplanned.  And it can be something as simple as this:  some activity or some injustice has called to the deepest level of our nature and demanded an active response.

D428367B-BFCB-4184-AB38-459D92FE9568When Brooks muses about vocation, one caveat matters.  Vocation is not confined to a monastic or religious vocation, as we reflexively might think in the Catholic tradition.  Brooks is Jewish, and he thinks of vocation in almost existential terms.  Common to all who search for their vocations is a fundamental set of questions.  What do we want to do with our lives?  To what will we dedicate our lives?  Will we be content to compile what is essentially a résumé of activities — a curriculum vitae?  Or do we want to create a legacy — a legacy of service and love that makes some small difference in the lives of others?

How we come upon a vocation is unique to each of us, and if we’ve been blessed with the discovery of a vocation we know it.  Brooks suggests that it’s the response to some person or event or ideal that has touched us and changed our lives completely.  After that experience we can never be the same because some sort of epiphany has altered the fabric of our being.

Brooks doesn’t use the word “epiphany,” but it’s a useful term, particularly on the day when we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany.  Epiphany to me suggests a second stage of Christmas.  If the Nativity proclaims Emanuel — God with Us, then Epiphany asks what difference this is going to make in our lives.  If we confess that Jesus Christ is the incarnate son of God, then what if anything do we intend to do about it?  Will the Nativity be the equivalent of a television show which we passively watch and then turn off?  Or will it reach to the core of our being?  That there is a choice to be made is obvious but also uncomfortable — both for Christians in general and even for monks.  At Epiphany the birth of the Lord cries for some visceral response from us.

It’s interesting to see how the characters in the Epiphany story responded to the birth of Jesus.  Forever after Mary pondered all these things in her heart.  She was never the same again.  As for Joseph, the events were equally jolting.  I’ve always believed that all Joseph really wanted was to get married, have some children and grandchildren, and live quietly under the radar.  That’s not what happened.  He went on to play a decisive role, and if at first an angel gave him all sorts of advice, Joseph eventually was on his own.  After all, the decision to settle into safety and security in Nazareth was his decision and his alone.

B6906C70-C563-4964-B6B4-9E6EC72864E2That was their Epiphany, and so today we ask what will be ours.  What is it that might change the course of our lives?  What is that unique experience or who is the person or what is the idea that will help us make sense of our lives?  Will we or can we be open to an epiphany?

Our moments of epiphany can be great or small, but they will certainly come if we keep our eyes and minds open.  As for me, a few days before Christmas I had just such an experience, for which I was totally unprepared.  I was at a gathering of friends of Saint John’s in Florida, and the host couple mentioned to me that the next day they’d be joining a group from Catholic Charities to deliver food baskets to migrant families.  I’d never done that before, and without thinking I invited myself to come along.

To say that the experience was an epiphany for me is an understatement.  That day I walked out of my comfort zone and discovered something profound.  First of all I had no idea that some people in America lived like that.  Whole families lived in two-and-a-half-room cottages.  Unrelated adults shared trailer homes that should have been recycled years ago.  That was the deeply disturbing part of this epiphany.  But there was something that was also puzzling.  Early on I met an elderly woman who was riding herd over seventeen kids.  The moms of these seventeen were at work in the fields, and the kids were running around like free range chickens.  What struck me was the sense of joy that pervaded the scene.  But it was a joy that seemed out of place.  After all, these people were desperately poor, and they should have been sad.  But they weren’t.  They celebrated the gift of life, and joy was etched into their faces.  And to me none of this quite computed.

639C1C6E-59D1-4DBC-B6EC-30202679A94EThere’s two things I took home with me that day.  First, that small epiphany reminded me that all people are the handiwork of God.  Be they poor or rich, migrants or exiles or homeless or comfortable homeowners — all are made in the image of God.  As such each needs to be loved and each deserves reverence and respect.  And this is the commitment that I make as a baptized follower of Jesus Christ.

The second item has to do with my own vocation.  There are days when my life as a monk seems like a job and a career choice that was right for me.  Then there are the days when it seems like a vocation, and those are the days with touches and even streaks of joy.  I and my confreres know the difference, and we know that the vocation days are far more exhilarating.  Those are the days when we feel the hand of God tugging at our sleeves.  Believe me, those are the better days by far.

On the feast of the Epiphany we make an act of faith.  We affirm that God loved the world and sent the incarnate son to be with us.  That son Jesus walks with us every day.  But Epiphany presents us with a challenge.  Will that pilgrimage with the Lord be a job or a good career choice?  Or will it be a pilgrimage that transforms us completely?  If it’s the latter, then our lives will never be the same again.

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NOTES

+New Year’s Eve was the highlight of the social scene in the monastery this past week.  We gathered in one of the recreation rooms in the monastery and played cards and board games, visited, and shared home-made pizza made by several of the monks.

+On Sunday January 5th I presided at the abbey Eucharist, and today’s post is the homily I delivered that day.  As noted in the text, I have been deeply indebted to David Brooks for ideas he has shared with his readers through the years.  Through those years I’ve become one of his most enthusiastic fans.

+It seems a little odd to use the Roman numerals MMXX for the new year.  But there you have it.  Happy new year to all my readers, and thanks for the many helpful comments I received during MMXIX.

+The wood-carving in today’s post was made by Master Arnt of Kalkar and Zwolle, in the Lower Rhine, c. 1480.  Today it is housed in the Schuntzen Museum in Cologne.  The photo at bottom shows a clock attached to the wall of a modern municipal building in Worms, Germany.

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Is It Too Fine a Point?

English understatement has always amused me.  Take, for instance, the following statement by the British economist and one-time editor of The Economist, Lady Barbara Ward Jackson.  “If anything is more clear, simple and precise in the Gospel…it is that those who don’t feed the hungry will go to Hell — not to put too fine a point on it.”

Lady Barbara offered that comment in 1967 as she addressed the graduating seniors of Saint John’s University.  Last week those same graduates gathered to celebrate their 50th reunion, and among other things they recalled this bit of wisdom that Lady Barbara had delivered fifty years earlier.  Back then her words must have resounded powerfully, and not just because they came from a woman speaking to an all-male class of graduates.  They were equally arresting because economists then — and now — normally didn’t say those kind of things.  And just as startling, she delivered this line as if there were nothing more to say on the matter — which of course was and still is true.

IMG_6485Undeniably, Jesus pretty much did say words to that effect, and he did so on more than one occasion.  Doubters need only recall the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the point comes through crystal-clearly.  And so it may suffice to say that we might not like what Jesus had to say on this particular subject, but that Jesus said it is something over which we cannot quibble.

Because of what Jesus said, Christians throughout history have busied themselves with feeding the hungry.  St. Paul took up collections for the poor in Jerusalem.  Fifth-century congregations took care of widows and orphans.  Today organizations like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services tend to the needs of the sick and the poor as only the most recent response to the words of Jesus.  And they do so, not because it seems like a nice thing to do (which of course it is), but because there’s strong evidence that Jesus commanded it.

All of us are capable of offering at least some bit of support for the work of these and similar organizations.  Still, we should never assume that a donation acquits us of any further need to act.  The truth of the matter is, we bear at least some responsibility on a personal level, and as evidence I cite the corporal works of mercy.  Granted, non-profits and NGOs are more efficient at feeding the hungry and clothing the naked on an industrial scale.  But the corporal works of mercy were not written with those groups in mind.  Rather, somebody drew up that list with each one of us in mind.

IMG_6527That expectation of personal initiative explains why many people get involved in groups in which they can give both their treasure as well as their time and talent.  In my own case it explains why I’ve chosen to devote some of my energy to the Order of Malta.  Certainly on a corporate level the Order ministers to the sick and the poor, but able-bodied members engage in such activity as a matter of course.  From my perspective this is a practical matter, because we believe that we see the face of Christ in the sick and the poor.  If we truly believe that, then why in the world would anyone want to delegate the exclusive rights to that vision to some corporate office?  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I too wouldn’t mind having just a peek at the face of Christ, thank you.  An official statement that the corporation had beheld the face of Christ is nice enough, but frankly I’d rather have the vision myself.

On any given day many if not most of us are not in a position to be out on the sidewalks giving food to the hungry.  It’s not impossible to do that, of course, but on a metaphorical level other ways of serving the hungry abound.  Offering a word of encouragement to someone who’s discouraged with life is but one instance.  Being a healthy example or mentor to a young person trying to set a course for a good life is another.  Visiting the sick and elderly who often lack visitors is still another.  And trying to be the face of Christ to someone who’s never met him is perhaps the greatest privilege of all.

IMG_6538With all due respect to Lady Barbara, I think the fires of hell may be a necessary motivation for some, but God has other arrows in the divine quiver.  Make no mistake about it, if feeding the hungry will spare me from the fires of hell, then I’m all for me feeding the hungry.  But perhaps even more enticing than the chance to avoid the fires of hell is the chance to make real the kingdom of God, right here and right now — in our families, in our neighborhoods and in our own little world.

I for one have lived on the premise that life on this earth is in many ways a foretaste of our eternal destiny.  If that is true, then I think it’s better to turn my little world into a slice of the kingdom of God rather than turn it into a bit of hell on earth.  I hope that’s not putting too fine a point on it.

IMG_6501Notes

+On June 23-24 Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict hosted 1,700 alumni and guests at summer Reunions.  This is the third year for the event, and its growth over last year suggests it’s an event that’s here to stay.  The only slight negative were the unexpectedly cool temperatures on Saturday.  By 1 pm it had reached only 57 degrees, which prompted a run on sweatshirts and jackets at the bookstore.

+On Sunday the 25th I attended a luncheon at which Saint John’s Abbey and University conferred the Pax Christi award on liturgical music composers Marty Haugen, David Haas and Fr. Michael Joncas.  These three have had an enormous impact on liturgical music in the United States, and at the luncheon we sang five of their compositions.  The Pax Christi is an award given in recognition of distinctive contributions to religion and culture.

+On June 24th we celebrated the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist, our patronal feast.  Abbot John presided at the community Mass and preached.

+On Sunday the 25th we hosted an especially large congregation at the Abbey Mass.  We also had three choirs, including the Abbey schola, the Saint John’s Boys Choir, and the National Catholic Youth Choir.  The latter group gave a half-hour concert before the Mass.

IMG_1845Coincidentally, a film crew from one of the major television networks was here for Mass as well as for morning and evening prayer on Sunday.  Abbot John did not command the monks to sit up straight and to look alert, but many of us did anyway.

+The photos in today’s post begin with an icon of St. John the Baptist by Aidan Hart.  In this instance it was placed on a pedestal in the hall leading from the monastery into the church.  Before processing into the church we monks were lined up on either side of the icon, and we passed by it as we proceeded into church.  The second photo shows a portion of the tents set up for a picnic for homecoming festivities, and the third and fourth capture a gathering in front of the Steven B. Humphrey Auditorium.  To the right of this paragraph is a statue of St. John the Baptist by artist Doris Cesar of New York.  It sits in the baptistery of the abbey church, but somehow Fr. Lew managed to cart this heavy item into the sanctuary of the church for the feast of Saint John the Baptist.  At bottom St. Benedict surveys some of the homecoming activities.  That sculpture is by our confrere Brother David-Paul Lange.

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