March 7, 2012

My Vocation: An Examination of Conscience

Today in the gospel we have the wonderful scene of Mrs. Zebedee trying to intrigue with Jesus for her sons to have the top spots in the Kingdom. (Matthew 20:17-28) Jesus responds by explaining that it doesn't work like that in his Kingdom; it won't be like it is among the gentiles where one lords it over another. Instead, to be close to Jesus, to sit by his side, will mean drinking the chalice of Christ's passion and suffering. The one who wants to be great must be the servant, and the one who wants to be first will be the slave.

This is the sort of teaching that put the hook in me for Christianity when I first sat down and read the New Testament. Here was the answer to the never-ending violence of this world, to the disregard for human life and the natural world, to the structures of privilege that gave so many material advantages to some and so few to others. The answer was a sort of inverted revolution accomplished by Christ crucified, a revolution that provides human nature with an escape from the violence of power and the tyranny of the self, a path from the death of sin to the life of Resurrection.

The Franciscan expression of Christianity grabbed me similarly. Here was what becoming the servant and slave looked like in practical terms. Francis had renounced his status and refused to have money. He had insisted on 'most high poverty.' For a kid who knew of no durable and complete way to understand the world and what it meant that he was in it, and who wondered why he should have the safety and leisure, the fun and play of being in college while other kids the same age were dying or suffering terrible traumas inside and out in Iraq, it was a powerful message.

Twenty years later, I have to ask myself how it's going. Have I drunk the chalice of Jesus Christ? Have I become servant and slave of all? Has my life as a friar made me a follower of most high poverty? I'm not sure. In some ways the religious life that I have found is more bourgeois in its orientation and presumptions than anything I knew beforehand. I live in a nice house. I can go out to eat if I want to. I have a smartphone. I can have nice beer. I have a reliable internet connection and pretty good health coverage.

For the three years I was a parish priest, I even had a good job. Having earned my credentials at the former Weston Jesuit School of Theology, I learned the trade, and found myself suited to it by both natural talent and supernatural gifts. I had my own office. Sometimes I felt like a functionary in a sacramental bureaucracy, especially when I found myself--as I often did--presiding at funerals, weddings, and baptisms of folks with little or no interest in the faith. But even at those moments I was usually able to rise to the occasion and preach even harder and better, giving reverence to the intense privilege of the opportunity for evangelization.

But I didn't get into this thing to have a career, to be a 'professional minister,' or even to be a respectable member of society. Were the apostles 'professional ministers'? Does anyone ask for the CVs of the martyrs? Have I drunk the chalice of Jesus Christ? Have I become a follower of most high poverty?

But here a critical and difficult question emerges: As a finally professed religious, is my obedience my poverty? Is my renunciation of my own will, the 'money bag of my own opinions' as St. Bonaventure put it, my highest poverty and my renunciation of the world? For example, if my superior tells me to take a nice vacation because he thinks I need it, or tells me to go buy new shoes because the ones I have are ratty and unpresentable, is letting go of my own will and ideas about these things my drinking of the chalice of Jesus' passion and death, even though the world is full of poor people and poor children who will never enjoy a nice vacation or have a new pair of shoes?


Anonymous said...

" I live in a nice house. I can go out to eat if I want to. I have a smartphone. I can have nice beer. I have a reliable internet connection and pretty good health coverage."

We have none of the above. I wouldn't know a "smart phone" if I saw one. We don't even own a television, and our internet service would try the patience of St. Joseph and Job. Neither one of us drinks; we couldn't afford to if we wanted to.

There is nothing romantic or wonderful about poverty. It is a hard, stressful and grueling existence...yes, existence, especially when you are no longer young enough to roll with the punches.

Did St. Bonaventure really say that about the "money bag of opinions"? Six of one or a half dozen of another, material poverty or the renouncement of self...I would say that the latter is a lot harder than the former. Unfortunately, I no longer have the energy or the ambition to do both.

Sara said...

Fr. Charles, maybe this will sound weird, but I can relate- to the bigger theme anyway of obedience to a vocation and to looking harder at why I "got into this thing."

I am 8 months pregnant. It's Lent. I can't fast, I can't kneel. I had to stop going to daily Mass, because I walk there and I can't do it anymore. I can't stay awake to pray early in the morning or at night. I can't donate money the way I normally would because I will be out of work soon.

I know that I am just hung up on what I think my Christian life is supposed to be like, or what I want it to look like, and that it's okay for me right now to be doing what I am doing. But knowing that makes it more frustrating that I am frustrated.

Brother Charles said...


May God bless you and your baby. Give him thanks that you discern so well and know what's right.

Anonymous said...

My parents grew up in a small island off the Adriatic coast in Croatia during WWII. They knew poverty. My father's family was the poorest in the entire village, and he would often tell of his embarrasment of going to Sunday mass with holes in his shoes. During the week he ran around the rocky soil in bare feet. There were friars in an adjoining village who would often come to check up on and minister to the locals. I remember hiding behind my mother's skirt at the tender age of 3 terrified of having met my first friar who wanted nothing more than to gift me a little religious figurine.

Now that I'm a little older, I've concluded that the beauty of their ministry was tied to the inner workings of the broader community. The friars lived just like the locals. They tilled their little plot of land and feasted and famined together. They laughed and cried together.

When I think of your ministry, Friar Charles, I think of the broader cyberspace community in the spirit of the New Evangelization. Although I've never met you, I feel as if I know you through your postings. Your exposing your interior struggles on a public blog has helped me discern my own spiritual shortcomings and growth (or lack thereof). Speaking as someone who has struggled in life to trust "institutions" you have become the voice in the desert ... the minister to the Anonymous ... of which I am truly grateful.

Despite your perceived community "luxuries," poverty comes in many forms. I can imagine it to be a very lonely existence being tied to your books and computer.