But they will not ask the Lord’s help unless they believe in him, and they will not believe in him unless they have heard of him and they will not hear of him unless they get a preacher, and they will never have a preacher unless one is sent, but as scripture says: “The footsteps of those who bring good news is a welcome sound.”
Romans 10: 14-5
This is the feast day of the Apostle Andrew. The gospel from Matthew relates Jesus’ calling of the first disciples, and in the reading from Romans, Paul invites us to reflect on the dynamic of being called and of calling.
In the passage from Romans quoted above, we hear that we can only come to see our lives as a call from God if we believe, and we can only come to believe if one who has known the reality of God in her or his own life awakens it in ours. Pope Francis, as St. Francis before him, reminds us that “preaching” is not only done from a pulpit or a street corner. For one whose life is grounded in faith, hope, and love, all of life, all encounters with others, all of one’s daily tasks are modes of preaching. Each of us is a capacity, a potential, to awaken the spirit, the awareness of God’s life and live, within other persons. The life of each of us is, in fact, a call, what we term in church-speak a vocation. The good news is that “the common, unspectacular flow of every day life,” in the experience of each of us, is a sacrament.
In the Fundamental Principles we read:
You were created by the God of love
in God’s image and according to God’s likeness,
to be a unique expression of that love.
It is through you
that God desires to manifest Love
to the peoples of the world in these times,
and to offer them the freedom of the children of God.
The passage from Romans reminds us that we only know this truth, that we are an image of God and unique expression of God’s love, because another or others have been sent to us. In turn, there are others who will not know this truth for and in themselves unless we are sent to them. So, we are asked today to realize gratitude for those who have spoken the word of God’s love to us and to attend to those moments today when we are called to offer that word to another.
In his essay, Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau famously wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. . . .A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” To realize in one’s own life (which is, in part, what is meant by the “contemplative life”) that one is a “unique expression” of God’s love and so of God’s “mission” to the world is to know the call to manifest to, but even more to evoke in, others that same love. Respect for life for one who knows this love includes but far exceeds respect for mere physical life. To know, not merely cognitively but in the very fiber of one’s being, the love of God entails a “compulsion” to serve that dawning awareness in those for whom life is desperate.
Adrian van Kaam says that “we know dissonance in light of consonance.” The more we realize the gift of God that is our life, the more we recognize the unconscious despair in so many around us. This spiritual despair is, it seems, most pervasive in the developed economies of the world. There is, of course, the physical desperation of those suffering famine and war — a desperation that is intimately connected to the selfishness and decadence of the world’s economic elites. Yet among the relatively affluent there is, as Thoreau described, an “unconscious despair” which is, as he points out, manifest in an inability to play. Play, says Thoreau, “comes after work.” Is it possible that in cultures such as ours in which overwork seems to be the rule, that there is a work that is not being done by us?
“They will never have a preacher unless one is sent.” There is only one kind of work in which a human person finds fulfillment and satisfaction. That is the work to which he or she is sent. It is the work that is our “vocation.” Over the years in attempting to serve the spiritual self-direction of others, I frequently hear people’s concern that they are failing to follow their call, that they have not yet in life found the work that is the expression of their true vocation. Yet, Romans seems to say to us that our vocation does not depend on one avocation or another. It is, rather, to bring a word of God’s love to those “whom we meet in our journey of life.” It is to realize the unique image of God’s love that we are and to so manifest it in our own lives that we become a summons to others, to the desperate we meet every day, to recognize the truth of their own call. This is what it means to be a preacher, to be a contemplative in action.
The mystical tradition reminds us that the more we become the one God calls us to be the more we see with the eye of God. Today, as every day, persons will come into our lives who do not know who they really are and how their very life is an expression of the love of God. In order to believe they will need someone to preach to them — not words of dogma and doctrine but works and words of love. To really love someone is to see her or him, even in a brief flash, as God does. The transcendent desire such a seeing evokes is that he or she may know him or herself in the way that we see them at that moment. That self-knowledge is also, at once, a call. It is a call in turn to become a preacher, that others may come to know the truth of God’s enduring and creative love of which all are called, in their unique way, to be preachers.
In the current issue of The New Yorker the brilliant literary critic James Wood reflects on the life of his mother following her death. After her death he hears from Katrina Porteous, an acclaimed poet and former student of his mother. His reflection exemplifies how we often come only to see in retrospect the “vocational” nature of the lives of even those closest to us.
I had a sense that my mother was a good teacher, but I had no idea that she had been such an influential one, and in the very area I had chosen, and struggled to succeed in, often in the face of parental doubts. She had been not just a good teacher but a crucial literary encourager, and I had not been able to see this well enough—because as a mother her pedagogy was so fraught, so anxious and vicarious, and was such a difficult companion of her role as a parent.
Sometimes, in anger or rebellion, I had felt that it was at best a frustration and at worst a misfortune to be the son of such a possessive and sharply gifted teacher. But my father knew better. To my surprise, he had these words put on her gravestone: “A devoted mother and grandmother and dear friend of many, including her former pupils.” He had properly assessed the components of her identity, the parts of her great labor, the variety of her lifework. What was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly. Her work was done.
James Wood, Lessons From My Mother, The New Yorker, December 5, 2016