Monday, September 2, 2013

The One Essential Work

"Some of the most inspiring work in America is being done quietly.... serving the least, the last, and the lost brings renewal that comes from the deepest well of human change: the human heart." Daniel R. Coats, "Foreword," Street Saints, by Barbara J. Elliott

"You have called some to serve by work and some to serve by waiting ... some to work in public ways and some to serve in the privacy of the home ... some to serve in religious ministries and some to serve in the secular world ... some to serve in active ways and some to serve by suffering." Intercessions from Labor Day 2013 Morning Prayer, Magnificat
Today in the United States, the annual holiday known as Labor Day was observed, or at least noticed, by most of us. Often the word labor is used to refer to physical work, and to the people who do such work. It is also used to refer to the body's work of birthing a child.

But not all labor requires observable physical expenditures of effort and energy. This morning's Magnificat prayers acknowledged not only waiting and work done at home as callings from God, but also suffering. For many people, these three experiences--waiting, working in privacy, and suffering--are often intertwined and simultaneous. It is difficult to accept waiting and suffering as callings from God when we haven't asked for them and don't want to say yes to them. It is particularly difficult when we have blame to aim--whether at another person (or other people), ourselves, or God.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said in a Christmas message, "God called the shepherds while they were still at work doing their duty. The best place in all the world to be for a higher summons is at a post of duty. Nowhere else are great temporal and spiritual blessings to be sought. When the Lord has a great gift or message to give to one of his children He sends it to the place where that person ought to be found. It matters very little what we are doing; what does matter is that we are doing our duty."

Some of the most powerful moments of my life have been when I've realized how an earlier difficult and painful experience, season, or even whole era of my journey prepared me to do something, to contribute, to make a difference in a way I hadn't imagined until it happened. When I say prepared, I don't mean God deliberately allowed me to be hurt in some way so that I would be prepared for a later scheme. I mean what biblical hero Joseph meant when he said (in Genesis 50:20) to his brothers who had sold him into slavery many years before, "Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good, to achieve this present end." Despite the intentions and resulting actions of human beings, it is God's intention to accomplish good in any case, through those who choose to cooperate with him, whatever the circumstances.

And what is the good that God always intends to accomplish? According to today's evening prayer, it is this: "God's great work is the creation and redemption of the world wrought through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The one essential work in which we are all called to participate is God's transforming love." Let us begin to participate by letting that love transform us, even if, for a while, that means waiting, working alone, suffering, or all three.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

And So Are We: The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

“When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you." Luke 14:12-14
"We are all created by one Creator, who establishes the members of the Body of Christ not according to our judgments but according to His own knowledge." Guigo de Ponte, 13th-century French Carthusian monk
"In most cases, people ... are far more naive and simple hearted than one generally assumes. And so are we." Fyodor Dostoevsky, Chapter 1, The Brothers Karamazov
I arrived at Mass this morning just in time to hear the opening words ("In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit") and to slip into one of the few remaining empty seats near the front of the sanctuary. I found myself standing next to a woman about my age. On the other side of her sat an older woman who I, over the next hour, surmised was her mother. When they left the pew at the end of Mass, the older woman leaned her left hand on a cane and her right hand was wrapped gently around her daughter's arm.

My almost-eighty-two-year-old stepmother ("bonus mom") is not Catholic, but I have had the joy of sitting next to her at a Catholic Mass on several occasions. One time was about nine months ago, at the funeral Mass for a longtime family friend. We had more than an hour's ride to return home, a mostly quiet journey, during which she twice broke the silence to tell me, "They said and did things at that service that seemed like they'd been doing them for thousands of years." A week or two later she went to Christmas morning Mass with me at a nearby monastery, the residents of which are mostly women her age, give or take a decade. During Communion, one of the altar servers, not knowing that my stepmom isn't Catholic, came to her in the pew and asked if she would "like to receive Jesus." "Yes," she replied. And so she did. Given the question and her answer, it seemed completely appropriate.

As on most Sundays, today we had lunch together in the public dining room of the retirement community where she lives. Afterward, we settled in at the dining-room-size table at the end of her hallway, where we indulged in our other Sunday habit: seeing how much of the current jigsaw puzzle we could assemble before one or the other or both of us got tired. Almost four hours later, on my way home, I stopped for another cup of tea. There I ran into an almost-eighty-year-old friend who just this weekend had moved out of the three-level house where she'd lived for many years with her husband (now departed) into an apartment in a retirement community similar to the one where my stepmom lives. She told me, among other things, that one of her new neighbors had invited her in for tea and a tour of her apartment, and on a large board in the center of her bed lay a large completed puzzle. The neighbor explained that her granddaughter would be arriving soon, and that the young woman, who doesn't bother trying to put puzzles together, loves to take them apart.

The first day of a new month seems as good a day as any to make a new commitment to blogging. Some days I will feel like fitting a few more pieces into the puzzle. Some days I will feel like taking the puzzle apart and putting it back in the box. Both kinds of days will be, like everything else, gifts from God.