Sunday, August 26, 2012

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

As lay people I feel that we are often tempted to believe that if we really want to live holy lives we have to shut ourselves off in a monastery or hermitage somewhere. Only there will be find the necessary silence to really engaged in the spiritual life, and with God the Trinity dwelling within us. If only we could spend all our free time in Church, praying the Divine Office, attending the Divine Liturgy, receiving Holy Communion, singing the Psalms continually, and really getting the time to sit down and engage the writings of the holy Fathers and Mothers of the spiritual life! If only! Then we would truly be able to live a life dedicated 100% to God. Then we would truly be able to be made holy and perfect as our heavenly Father is holy and perfect.

But the spiritual Fathers and Mothers of the Church teach us that nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, our own experience, if we have eyes to see, teach us that nothing can be further from the truth. I am reminded of events taking place in monasteries today, and events that have taken place in monasteries throughout history, that show us clearly that holiness is not to be found in monasteries alone. Indeed, there are times when holiness is a rare thing even within the confines of monastery walls. 

Now I'm not writing this post to discourage monastic vocations. Such vocations are truly wonderful callings and ought to be embraced by those who are called. Rather, I'm writing this post for those of us who do not have monastic vocations, and yet feel like we would've been happier, or perhaps had a better opportunity to become holy, had we entered the religious life.

There's a saying from St. Nikon of Optina that I believe puts such thoughts (or are they temptations?) into perspective: "A place cannot save you... because there is no place where you can flee from yourself." Ultimately it's not where we go, or what vocation we are called to that saves us. Rather, salvation is something that is offered to us by Christ through the vocation to which we are called or which we have embraced. We accept the salvation offered to us by engaging ourselves and living up to the challenge to be transformed, to be converted, through the vocation in which we are living right now. If we who are called to marriage cannot be drawn more deeply into the Trinitarian life through our vocation, then what makes us think that a monastery will be any different. We could say the same of monastics. If men and women who are genuinely called to the monastic life cannot be drawn more deeply into the Trinitarian life through their vocation, then a change in vocation isn't going to fix things. We could apply this to any calling. The place and persons surrounding you may have changed, but you're still going to have to deal with yourself with all your faults, imperfections, quirks, etc.

Our calling in life, no matter what calling that may be, provides us the opportunity to become truly holy. Through our vocations we are forced to take a long and serious look at ourselves, to examine the inner workings of our heart. Our vocations reveal to us all that is good and all that is bad within us; our strengths and our weaknesses, where we have surrendered ourselves fully to Christ and where we have clung to our sinful ways, where the light of Christ has shone, and where the darkness of sin still remains within us. We are then provided with the opportunity to grow in Christian holiness through our vocation. Vocations provide us with the opportunities we need to be converted, to change our fallen ways over to Christ's ways, to surrender ourselves over to Him completely.

We ought not to think for a moment that a monk in his monastery, or hermit in his cell, or a priest in his parish is somehow automatically holier than a lay person. There is a wonderful story about an angel that appeared to St. Antony (the Great) of the Desert - founder of monasticism in the East. This angel revealed to St. Antony that there was a man, a doctor, living in the midst of the hustle and bustle of city life. This man had reached the same heights of holiness as St. Antony himself! How? By living fully living out his vocation out of love for God and his neighbor, and allowing himself to be transformed through the calling which God had given him.

People and places do not make us holy. Rather, they provide us with opportunities to grow in holiness. Our responses to persons and situations show us where our hearts lie. It is up to us to hold those responses up to the witness of the Gospels and the examples of the saints to see how we are measuring up. When we fall short, it is our vocation that provides us with the opportunity to repent and correct our failures, with the help of God's grace of course.

In the end there is really only one vocation, as St. Therese of Lisieux so wisely pointed out. All of us, whether single, married, priest, monk, nun, hermit, or whatever, all of us are called to love. That is the universal vocation. Through the Incarnation Jesus showed us that love is not some over-arching general idea, or sentiment of goodwill towards all mankind. The love to which we are all called is a love lived out in the nitty gritty and tedious details of everyday life. This is where our specific personal vocations come in. The universal call to love is lived by us through our individual callings or vocations. May God give each of us the strength to fully embrace our vocations in order that we might be ever more conformed to the Divine Likeness!

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