And so at long last she’s here. Arriving on Valentine’s Day (or the Memorial of Saint Cyril, monk, and Saint Methodius, bishop; depends on what you celebrate), my Sophia Rose entered this world. Already I sense that my life has changed forever.
Sophia means “wisdom” in Greek. She was the legendary mother of the virgin martyrs Faith, Hope and Charity. Three days after their deaths she is said to have passed peacefully away while praying by their tomb, and is thought to be the personification of an allegory. Meaning, I guess, that if we lose the first three, wisdom is doomed to follow. Or, wisdom exists only because of the three things it has given “birth” to. Jeez…that’s a little deep, eh? I’ll stop before I hurt myself.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard has reminded us that “we know backward, but we must live forward.” And so must we all. Therefore I have decided, beginning on Ash Wednesday on the 21st, to take the occasion of Lent to remain offline. I will not be checking my emails or messenger from home. It is of necessity, too, with Sophia and the boys needing as much attention as I can muster. But after Lent it may even last longer, if not permanently.
We need to “live forward.” I want to continue to learn how to play the guitar. I want to learn Latin. I want to be able to read Augustine as he thought and wrote…in Latin. It’s been said that reading Augustine in English is like listening to Mozart on a jukebox. I want to exercise the statement put forth by Thomas Aquinas that “the task before our heart is not to hold a fickle lover but to spend itself.” I want to spend my heart on my children…on my family. I also want to focus on my writing in the hope that I can affect other hearts. This I cannot do if online. I simply lack the discipline to do other things because I enjoy talking to so many of you so much.
Put simply, I’ve found my vocation. Our vocation is not only the way that we love God but the way that God loves us. Thomas Merton, a 20th century Trappist monk wrote that “a man knows when he has found his vocation when he stops thinking about living and begins living.” I believe I’m finally finding mine. And as usual, it’s not what I had thought it would be.
Mother Teresa said “You can do something I can’t do. I can do something you can’t do. Together let us do something beautiful for God.” Some Christians, or even non-Christians, still believe that sanctity is reserved only for saints who are long dead, such as Peter or Joan of Arc. The idea of the holy person in everyday life strikes many people as a bit strange.
Thomas Merton often distinguished between the “false self” and the “true self.” The false self is the person we present to the world, the one we think will be pleasing to others: attractive, confident, successful. The true self, on the other hand, is the person we are before God. Sanctity consists in discovering who that person is and striving to become that person. As Merton wrote, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”
God’s invitation to live out our unique vocations is part of what makes the world so rich. “How gloriously different are the saints,” wrote C.S. Lewis. Problems arise when we begin to believe that we have to be someone else to be holy. We try to use someone else’s map to heaven when God has already planted in our soul all the directions we need. In that way, we ignore our own call to sanctity. When admirers used to visit Calcutta to see Mother Teresa, she would tell many of them, “Find your own Calcutta.” I guess that in effect, I’m going offline to find my own Calcutta.
Thomas Merton, in No Man Is an Island wrote:
Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing such things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we were made for?
We cannot be ourselves unless we know ourselves. But self-knowledge is impossible when thoughtless and automatic activity keeps our souls in confusion. In order to know ourselves it is not necessary to cease all activity in order to think about ourselves. That would be useless, and would probably do most of us a great deal of harm. But we have to cut down our activity to the point where we can think calmly and reasonably about our actions. We cannot begin to know ourselves until we can see the real reasons why we do the things we do, and we cannot be ourselves until our actions correspond to our intentions, and our intentions are appropriate to our own situation. But that is enough. It is not necessary that we succeed in everything. A man can be perfect and still reap no fruit from his work, and it may happen that a man who is able to accomplish very little is much more of a person than another who seems to accomplish very much.
Merton reminds me that fame is not the reason one writes. In a culture that prizes the bold gesture, the public proclamation, the newsworthy article, I find myself consistently drawn to achieving things so that other people can see them. Doing a good work seems insufficient: others need to know that I have done this good work! In this way I find my appetite for fame in contradiction to what Jesus taught. “But when you give alms,” he says in the Gospel of Matthew, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”The Screwtape Letters), I at least feel compelled to see where it leads me. Indeed, the online blog you are currently reading from will be disappearing in all likelihood later this summer as well. I’ve no time for blogging anymore, and prefer to write for myself for now. And to write for my children. Writing is proving to be too much of a “fickle lover” and I’d rather spend my time on earth seeking that mysterium tremendum et fascinans. That tremendous and fascinating mystery. In other words, exercising what Aquinas called Fides Quarens Intellectum, or faith seeking understanding. Hmmmm….sounds like a good subject for a book in of itself, no?
The burning desire for fame is of course a manifestation of pride, a pride that seeks not the hiddenness of the desert or the humility of the unseen act, but the adulation of others. Ultimately it is a destructive mind-set, since one can never receive enough acclaim to satisfy the craving for attention or fame or notoriety. Inexorably, it leads to despair and so must be resisted. But while the path to humility is necessary, it is a difficult one to tread. In Henri Nouwen’s words, one strives to seek the freedom to be “hidden from the world, but visible to God.”
And I wonder if the more hidden the act, the more valued it is by God. I am reminded of the legend of a master sculptor in one of the great medieval cathedrals of France. The old man spent hours and hours carving the back of a statue of Mary, lovingly finishing the intricate curves and folds of her gown. But, someone asked the sculptor, what’s the point? That statue will be placed in a dark niche against the wall, where certainly no one will ever see the back of it.
God will see it, he answered.
I long for that kind of holiness. But I am very far from it.
Earlier I said that I want to write. I had always thought I could be, and would be, a published author one day. But none of that matters as much to me anymore. While I will continue my writing courses that I enrolled in last fall, it’s become clear to me that I’m not a writer. I am a voracious reader who can speak well. And not all readers are writers. But writers are readers…so I guess there’s some hope for me yet. While am I working on developing a project that will more than likely never see the light of day (hint: it’s based upon one of my favorite books, C.S. Lewis’
And so, my dear friends, if you’ve made it this far with me into this extended adieu, then the time has come for us to part. Some of you I’ve been blessed to know for over four years…some of you, less. A few of you I consider friends unsurpassed. All of you, in your own ways, I consider angels. Angel, from the Greek angelos, means simply “messenger.” All of you have delivered your own messages whether you realized it or not at the time. It’s just that God delivered a big one when He sent Sophie to me. And she’s the angel whose message I’ve chosen to heed, having learned so very much from each and every one of you. I only hope I’ve in some small way returned the favor. It’s difficult to explain, but I’ll instead rely on a line from the movie The Song of Bernadette that said, “For those with faith no explanation is necessary; for those without faith no explanation is sufficient.”
There’s an old Swahili proverb: Mwamini Mungu si mtovu. “Who trusts in God lacks nothing.” May all of you, in matters in which you have struggled, learn to trust.
I leave you with a meditation and a prayer, which I hope you take to heart. I close with them because they are my prayers and hopes for myself. But, they are also my prayers for each of you. Let these be the first steps I take in “spending” my heart with others.
The first is a meditation on love, by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Pedro Arrupe.
Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
And I close with a prayer by Thomas Merton from Thoughts in Solitude. I close with this because it’s my prayer for myself:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.